A common application for tenure-track positions


It often takes a large number of applications for highly qualified applicants to land a tenure track position. Let’s say that many universities signed on to a common application system for faculty applications. What would that look like, and how would it change the job market and the outcomes of searches?

To be clear, I’m not advocating for a common application for tenure-track jobs. This is just a thought experiment. This is just a blog, and I thought it’d be fun to think about this. And yeah, since this is my idea of fun, I guess I’ll concede I might not be the life of a party.

I’m not going to fret the details (Who pays for it? Are there secondary applications? Is there a decision day?) because this isn’t an actual proposal. In no particular order, here are some thoughts about how it might play out:

  • Applicants will apply for more positions. Right now, I know a lot of people who limit the number of jobs they apply for because it’s just too much work to apply for them all. If all that it takes is to check a box for every job that you might be qualified for, why not apply more broadly? Even if you think it’s a bad fit, you never know, right?
  • Departments might streamline selection because they get more applicants, and focus on a narrower set of criteria for the initial filtering of applications. (If you think the overemphasis on the number of publications is bad now, imagine how it might get worse.)
  • Search committees will be a lot more worried about whether each applicant is genuinely interested in the position in the long term, because the ease of the application process might attract more applicants who see the job as a backup because it doesn’t fit their long-term career agenda. This may be a particular concern for low-prestige institutions and those that have been considered “geographically challenged.”
  • Because applicants can’t customize their applications for each position, this presents a particular challenge: Do they try to be as general and vague as possible, trying to catch a breath of institutions, or do they design an application designed to target particular institutions based on research strengths and needs, institutional mission, student population, geography, and so on? What is the art of creating an application targeting particular campuses but still attracting other institutions?
  • It’s extremely common for applicants to prepare one set of materials research-focused institutions and another for teaching-focused institutions such as SLACS and regional publics. (And it’s common for letter-writers to have two versions of the letter, and in my experience, the letters from prestigious R1s to regional publics are often laced with notes of condescention, by the way. Just a heads up, y’all, it doesn’t help your trainee.) How do applicants thread this needle? Is it possible that this will might result in more honest signaling from applicants? Because to say that you really love teaching undergraduates could the the death knell for some jobs, but also be required for some other jobs.
  • Departments are likely to change their job descriptions, perhaps narrowing the academic focus of the position to limit the number of qualified applicants to something more reasonable (and also limit the number of applicants whose research and teaching doesn’t fit the slot the department wants to fill). But the drawback is that broader searches tend to create a more diverse pool of candidates, so this might prevent departments from bringing in the talent that their departments need. Other departments also might want to be able to skim from a very large pool of applications, and they might change the disciplinary focus to be ore broad.
  • The gamespersonship over offers and counteroffers might get out of hand as there might be a small number of people who interview even more widely, and some universities will feel compelled to fight over them even though there is still an incredibly deep pool. This is already the current state of affairs in a lot of places, but I imagine this might get worse?
  • Institutions that would opt out of the common application might be far more likely to get applicants who aren’t just applying on a lark, and those searches might have a higher probability of success. So I guess the system might reach an evolutionarily stable frequency of institutions that participate and don’t participate in the common application.

What do you think? What else might happen? Do you actually think this might be a good idea? Or would it be a train wreck?

8 thoughts on “A common application for tenure-track positions

  1. I’m voting “train wreck”, and you’ve identified a lot of reasons! But I worry it’s my knee-jerk skepticism of change.

    I just don’t see job positions as fungible. Yes, I know I recently argued that candidates should apply even if they don’t have the “preferablies”. But I wouldn’t go so far down that road as to remove the ability of candidates to customize their responses to them… Or in a stricter version of your proposal, of departments to list them.

    What’s the problem such a system would be solving? Do you think results might be more equitable? Or that customizing applications is an unfair work burden for candidates?

    • The reason this this occurred to me is because I so often see folks saying how onerous it is to apply for so many jobs. And, I thought, what could make it easier on them? I have no idea if it would be more equitable. I imagine it could be less, because (as Needhi Bhalla said on twitter) departments who want to be sure to recruit candidates who meet specific campus priorities for DEI, a customized application gives them the information they need. I don’t think it’s an unfair burden for candidates to customize apps, though it’s a bummer. I think customizing can work in the advantage of the candidate. I also imagine campuses like mine might have it easier in the search process to filter out the people who are clearly targeting their applications for different types of institutions. I know a lot of people who apply to SLACs and regional publics as backup jobs, who are planning to leave as soon as they arrive, and a common application would make it a lot harder for these folks to fake it while customizing. I think my campus often does a great job hiring people who actively want the job, and prefer it over other kinds of jobs, but a lot of stress in the hiring process involves this issue. Which oddly enough, I had discussed in the recent post about What’s the Hurry With the Job Offer?

  2. Digression, but one you might be able to help with: I’d like to know how to write that letter to the regional public that would help my trainee! My degrees are from prestigious R1’s, and I teach at a less prestigious R1. So I know how the thinking goes and what to say. But that path is not necessarily the one that my doctoral students wish to tread—there’s significant interest in SLACs, and I think some would be interested in regional public as well. I’d love to get some information that would enable me to write letters that would actually help my trainees.

    • Hey! I would say to write a good letter, it just helps to walk a mile in our shoes and imagine what our priorities and concerns are, and what our environment is like. I mean, you’re reading here, so I imagine you’re somewhat along that journey, eh? How about I give the lowlights of the crappy kinds of comments that we get from prestigious faculty about their PhD students and postdocs who have deigned to apply for a job with us. These aren’t quotes, just the take-homes as I remember them.

      -The applicant doesn’t necessarily have the research chops to thrive at an R1, but they should be good enough for us (usually phrased more delicately, but that’s the essence of it)
      -The applicant is originally from that area, and while they could have a chance at a better job in another city, they’ll probably be happy with you because of their geography.
      -The applicant loves to teach, and they were never really thrilled about research but they did enjoy mentoring students, so they’re a good fit for you
      -The applicant is a first-gen student who never fit into our highly competitive environment and they’ll be happier in an institution like yours
      -The applicant has a very strong history of grantwriting and they could help energize your department by bringing this expertise

      What are some better things to say, that address our concerns?
      -The applicant has the research talent and drive to succeed anywhere, and based on their interest in combining teaching, research, and undergraduate mentorship, this looks like a good fit
      -The applicant grew up in your area and it would be tremendous for them if they landed a position in their hometown
      -The applicant has spent effort to develop their teaching skills and experience, and they have done a superb job doing transformational research while teaching and mentoring students
      -I have to admit that our institution did not serve the applicant well, and they were often marginalized because of their identity. Fortunately for us, these adverse experiences haven’t driven the out of the field, and instead inspired them to develop the capacity to advise and support other first-gen students, which I anticipate would be a strong asset to your department.
      -The applicant has a very strong history of grantwriting and they look forward to building a well-funded laboratory that supports many students.

      To be clear, I’d say most of the letters we get are pretty good. It’s just the doozies really stand out because they’re so ignorant and so insulting. We generally don’t hold it against the applicants if their letter writers don’t know much about academia. beyond their bubble.

      • Thanks so much for this. Your examples show so clearly what a difference tone makes. If I were to paraphrase, I’d say I want my letter to say “you’re getting somebody really good” and do my best to demonstrate a little thought about what “good” might mean to the hiring department. But your examples say this better than any paraphrase.

        Love the blog!

  3. Why not a hybrid model where a very minimal common application is asked for up front and then search committees solicit full, tailored, applications for the final 15 or 20 or whatever they think is a reasonable short list along with letters just for that list. Having prepared a few hundred applications over the past few years and knowing many in the same situation, it absolutely is a major burden on job seekers.

  4. I think a common application system would create more problems than it would solve, in exactly the way you describe. A better solution would be to reduce the amount of materials required for applying for a job in the first place: less work for the applicant, less work for the search committee, and (to be honest) do you really read all of those research and teaching statements thoroughly? Do you really scrutinize those teaching portfoloios and recommendations and diversity statements for every applicant?

    Having applied for TT positions in the US and also the equivalent permanent lecturer positions in the UK, I think that the UK system is much, much better. The application requires a cover letter and CV, so applicants can tailor their self-presentation to the job, but there’s no research statement, teaching philosophy statement, or anything like that. Instead, there’s an application form where you enter a few sentences in a box for every one of the required and desireable criteria and explain how you meet them. So instead of having to create page after page of eloquent composition, with introductions, transitions, conclusions, all carefully tailored to make it seem like your philosophy just happens to include all the buzzwords in the job criteria, you straightforwardly address those criteria without pretending that they emerged organically from your pre-existing identity as scholar and teacher.

    Also, recommendations aren’t required until very late in the process.

    Also, everyone interviews on the same day and gets an offer within 12 hours. It’s awesome.

  5. We have this in math, except applicants can tailor elements of the application as they wish. It has a lot of good aspects, but it’s not perfect.

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